What if Stan Brakhage made comics instead of films? Curator Andrei Molotiu makes a case in Silent Pictures, a group show of comics artists working in the hinterlands of comics abstraction. Wait – comics can be abstract?
Silent Pictures brings to the James Gallery at CUNY Graduate Center some of the most vital imaginations found throughout a three-year call for entries. They come from North America, western Europe, and Australia. Many are American; almost none are women. In her catalog essay, James Gallery Director Linda Norden reveals that no women replied to the call. (Why have there been no great women comic-book artists?)
The show also displays selections from Art Spiegelman’s library of wordless comics; and it features a film program for those who really might want to invoke the ghost of Brakhage. Never mind that the films have sound. I wanted to investigate why, but the gallery’s noisy security alarm beeped persistently, relentlessly, mercilessly – a disappointing and intrusive distraction for a unique show otherwise worth extended attention.
But the segment of Robert Breer’s A Man and His Dog Out for Air, 1955, is absolutely silent. That’s because the film strips are unspooled and sandwiched over a lightbox. Frame by frame, we witness loose lines inch toward each other, until they amalgamate into a squiggly scribble that looks like an ant, life-sized. The restless line continues to transform, until it contorts into the image of a portly man walking a dog. The whimsical cartoon straddles abstraction and representation, something and nothing, like a time-based Kandinsky.
“A line is a dot that went for a walk,” said Paul Klee, whose ghost coexists here with Brakhage’s spirit, leaning against the wall that bears Billy Mavreas’ Border Suite, 2008. Reminiscent of drawings from Klee’s Bauhaus, the work looks like comic panels that imploded into fractal regenerations of themselves.
At a glance, Klee’s Bauhaus colleague, Josef Albers, is apparent in the polychrome plans of Squares within Squares, 2007 by Mark Gonyea. And Jason Overby, from Oklahoma, could be their diligent protégé. His studious, tiny notes in Apophenia, 2008 say things like, “A linear structure is created by an abstract binary opposition. Pencil lets flaws in and is not binary (unless you’re thinking conceptually).” Shazam!
Ibn al Rabin exhibits six comics from his collection, Cidre et Schnapps, 2001. They are hilarious and brilliant.
In Rabin’s pages, geometric shapes argue with each other, consume each other, and get ambushed in ruthless panelcide. Funny pages, but they also offer a study of the means by which they exist and the conventions that define comics, in general.
I would focus on other examples, but too many candidates are hung too high for much evaluation. Many of the drawings and inkjet prints are intimate in scale and rich in detail, so lord knows why the work is hung salon-style, climbing up the walls like your friendly neighborhood you-know-who. So the walls imitate a comics page? But the gallery walls already compartmentalize the space like panels on a page. Whatever; viewers are advised to bring platforms.
Renée French is one of the few women in the show, but her colossal drawing Straw Dog no. 44, 2009 is enough work for several people. If we accept it as multiple drawings, then that adds to the show 29 drawings made by a woman. And because the multi-paneled drawing echoes the window panes of the gallery, and vice-versa, the work echoes throughout the space.
Andrei Molotiu tells us in his catalog essay, ”‘Abstract’ here is specific to the medium of comics, and only partly overlaps with the way it is used in other fine arts.” Still, Mark Stafford Brandi gives us A History of Composition in Abstract Comic Covers, 2001 – a collection of painted collages on masonite panels, one for each ism, trend, and movement from the last few milennia.
SVA faculty member Gary Panter is in the show. You can read more about his work in this Artforum piece by Andrei Molotiu.